America appears to be losing an important edge in the global knowledge economy, with its share of college-educated workers falling relative to rival economic powers, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
At present, the study found, one in four of the 255 million people worldwide with a bachelor's degree or higher live in the United States. But that share is expected to shrink in the coming years, as developing countries such as Korea and China push more and more of their citizens into college. China already accounts for 12 percent of the world's college-educated working population, even though only 5 percent of its people have gone to college. And that trend will only gain momentum as younger Chinese citizens age into the college demographic; among young workers aged 25-35, China accounts for 18 percent of the college-educated.
"The expansion of tertiary education in many countries has narrowed the advantage of Japan and the United States both in overall levels of attainment and in the sheer number of individuals with tertiary education," the OECD writes.
Some countries that already have a big share of college-educated workers--such as France, Ireland, Japan and Korea--are expected to increase the number of people who graduate college in the coming years. But America--along with Estonia, Iceland, Israel, Russia and Switzerland--is expected to lose its standing over time. The United States is showing no growth in the share of young people who go to college compared to a generation ago.
"The United States is quite alone in that young people entering the labor market are not better educated than people leaving the labor market," study author Andreas Schleicher told reporters on Monday.
America is still in the top five of the 34 OECD countries in the percentage of college-educated workers, but among younger workers, the United States slips to 16th. In Japan, Korea, Canada and Russia, more than 50 percent of 25 to 35 year-olds have a college education.
American colleges charge the most in tuition compared to all other countries in the OECD survey, but American college-educated workers also earned the biggest salary premium over workers with less education than in any other country, at 79 percent. That premium has only increased after the financial crash in 2008. "The recession has amplified the impact of education on outcomes," Schleicher said.